Bookshops Are Dead: And I Killed Them

This post, from Eoin Purcell, originally appeared on his blog on 1/4/10 and is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission.

2009 was a weak year for me in book reading terms. I read perhaps 26 or so (with some extra I’m fairly sure I have forgotten):

1) Europe Between The Oceans
2) A Fire Upon The Deep
3) The Ascent of Money
4) Blood of the Mantis
5) The Training Ground
6) Dragonfly Falling
7) The Blade itself
9) Before They Are Hanged
10) Ireland in 2050
11) Gutenberg Revolution
12) Empire in Black & Gold
13) Empire of the Sea
14) Edward I: A Great & Terrible Kind
15) The Last Argument of Kings
16) The Steel Remains
17) The Dreaming Void
18) The Adamantine Palace
19) Defying Empire
20) The Darkness That Comes Before
21) A Shadow in Summer
22) A Betrayal in Winter
23) An Autumn War
24) Young Miles
25) The Stars My Destination
26) Earthman, Come Home

On the other hand I bought quite a few more than that, perhaps something like 50 or 60 books. I’m hoping to push the read figure up towards 45 or so and if I’m really lucky, I might even average one a week.

Serious thoughts
I was thinking while calculating this poor reading effort of the changes that Seth Godin pointed to in a recent post:

iTunes and file sharing killed Tower Records. The key symptom: the best customers switched. Of course people who were buying 200 records a year would switch. They had the most incentive. The alternatives were cheaper and faster mostly for the heavy users.

He drew a comparison with books and Amazon’s recent somewhat questionable Kindle news, that they sold more books via Kindle than in paper on Christmas day:

Amazon and the Kindle have killed the bookstore. Why? Because people who buy 100 or 300 books a year are gone forever. The typical American buys just one book a year for pleasure. Those people are meaningless to a bookstore. It’s the heavy users that matter, and now officially, as 2009 ends, they have abandoned the bookstore. It’s over.

I think Seth is right and yet wrong. He is right, bookstores as we’ve known them are dead. But Amazon killed them long before they released the Kindle. Cheap books delivered through the mail are the way forward for those of is who buy in large numbers (I’m probably a medium rank buyer of books).

The Book Depository sucks up a good 60% of my book buying at the moment and accounts for almost all my new book purchases with 10% or less spent in chain stores or supermarkets. The rest is spread very unevenly as follows: 25% in second-hand and car-boot sale locations (Ravenbooks features here and I suspect in 2010 will feature even more) which is made up almost exclusively of out of print and pre-2000 books, the last 5% or so gets spent fairly randomly everywhere from good independents, to local shops with self published titles and random online direct purchases and ebooks (I’m still primary print and suspect I will always be so, despite a belief and passion for digital text).

He is wrong, however, when he says that the top rank of book buyers are gone for ever from print, because many of those buying books on Kindle will buy some, get some free and eventually return to print books, many more of the top buyers will simply ignore digital books in favour of print because they like it.

This is not a defence of print against digital (like this op-ed from Jonathan Galassi president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux) as, ultimately, I believe the bulk of books will be read digitally before the end of the teens, but it is not as simple a case as music when whether or not you had a cd or an mp3 makes little difference to the listener, the quality was just the same and the process of using it fairly similar too. Books on the other hand are usable on their own without input from a device of any kind and with the proviso that there is light. Those readers who, like me, still enjoy the experience of reading in print will still buy in print even as the price of print books rises.

So there will be demand for print books but at a much reduced level (because many others will shift to digital as will casual readers and new readers) and the economics of bookshops will become completely skewed favouring the online Emporia. Booksellers can react by hand-selling to customers and making themselves relevant as Ravenbooks has (I am increasingly sure of finding a pile of relevant books there every time I walk in) and no doubt this will mean concentrating on older books, out-of-print books and second-hand books, books that appeal directly to the customer, and print-on-demand books printed directly on site (though I am less convinced of the economic case for this).

Whatever way you look at it though, by not buying in chain stores, and rarely enough in independents, I killed the chain bookshop and I got away with it!

More to come today!

Eoin PurcellEoin Purcell works and lives in Dublin where owns and runs Green Lamp Media, a publishing, publishing services and content company. Green Lamp works with authors, publishes books digitally and in print and with publishers on social media and content projects.

He was formerly commissioning editor with one of Ireland’s oldest independent publishers Mercier Press. Prior to that he worked at Nonsuch Ireland as commissioning editor and publishing manager. He is a board member of Publishing Ireland, the Irish Publishers association.

He contributes occasional blog posts and columns on the Irish book trade for The Bookseller magazine. He also writes a blog at and edits